Ethiopia’s economic miracle is an environmental tragedy

2 May

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

A giant rose farm, a soda works, and thousands of local farmers pay nothing for the water they take so freely from Ethiopia’s rivers and lakes, which are now drying up at terrifying speed.

Around Ethiopia’s Lake Abijatta the ground crunches beneath you, and it becomes impossible to approach the lake’s pink flamingos without the risk of it cracking completely. More than half of the lake has disappeared in the past 30 years, leaving a vast expanse of salt flats. Satellite images collected by researcher Debelle Jebessa Wako reveal that from 1973 to 2006, its surface area shrank from 76 to 34 square miles. Its depth dropped from 43 to 23 feet between 1970 and 1989, and fish have disappeared because of the remaining water’s increased salinity. The other lakes in the central part of the Great Rift Valley (Ziway, Shalla, and Langano) face the same threat.

The core problem is Ethiopian-style development, the downside of the economic miracle vaunted by prominent economistsThe World Bank praised Ethiopia’s double-digit growth from 2005 to 2015, mostly due to expanding agriculture, construction, and services. Ethiopia, a landlocked state, is doing all it can to attract foreign investors, with water and electricity almost free and rents at 10 percent of market rate, especially in the textile sector. The rural population and the environment are the biggest losers.

The town of Ziway near Lake Abijatta and about 125 miles south of the capital, Addis Ababa, is thriving, thanks to dynamic primary industries. France’s Castel Group, the second-largest producer of beer and soft drinks in Africa, has established vineyards, and the Dutch multinational Afriflora Sher has set up the world’s largest rose farm, employing 1,500 workers who earn $83 a month. These companies pay nothing for water from the Bulbula river, which flows into Lake Abijatta. Local farmers have installed an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 illegal pumps that consume even more water.

Since 1970, when Abijatta-Shalla National Park was created, the water table has officially been protected. The 342-square-mile park, once all acacia forest, includes both lakes and the 70,000 people who live there and graze their cattle within the protected area. Some boost their income by selling charcoal made from felled trees, which can lead to a five-year prison sentence, though checks are rare; the park wardens have only two vehicles, so patrols are minimal. Thieves remove truckloads of sand from the park to sell to the construction industry. Park director Banki Budamo said, “Two years ago, a warden was killed trying to stop these thieves. Seven others have been seriously injured.” Antelopes and Ethiopian wolves have gone from the park, and so have migratory birds.


Budamo’s 63 wardens are trying new tactics. Warden Amane Gemachu, in her military fatigues, plays with village children and converses with the elders. “We’re trying to be diplomatic and sensitize people,” she said. When she was hired five years ago, the lake was more than half a mile wider, she said. She blames the Abijatta-Shalla Soda Ash Share Company (ASSASC), which makes bicarbonate of soda and uses water from Lake Abijatta. She insisted the company, 45 percent owned by the Ethiopian state, is also responsible for the disappearance of fish because of chemical discharges. Berhane Amedie, ASSASC’s director, assured me that it does not use any chemicals.

At the company’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, he introduced me to Worku Shirefaw, the engineer responsible for the construction of a factory that will use water from Lake Shalla. “The Abijatta factory is a pilot project. The plan was always to build another, bigger one. Lake Shalla is much deeper and so less prone to evaporation,” Amedie said. The company aims to increase production from the current 3,000 tons a year to 200,000 tons, possibly even 1 million. “We’re expecting to make $150 million a year.” Bicarbonate of soda is used in the manufacture of glass bottles, for cleaning products, and by local tanneries. The size of the new factory will enable it to export, mainly to Asia, which will generate foreign currency.

Ethiopia imports five times as much as it exports—$15.59 billion compared with $3.23 billion in 2017—and it needs foreign currency. Dollar-based loans can take up to a year to be approved, during which time businesses are unable to import materials or equipment. So the government encourages export-oriented investment. That is why Shirefaw is unfazed by a government report that concluded that the new factory was “not recommended on environmental grounds.” He said construction will begin within a year and production within four to five years.

Five-year development and transformation plans encourage horticulture, although it, too, is heavily water dependent. Ethiopia’s first rose farm was established in 2000, and the country quickly became Africa’s second-largest rose exporter, after Kenya. Michel van den Bogaard, Afriflora Sher’s finance director, said, “In 2005 the government sought us out in Kenya. We had a good reputation.” The company’s appeal was mainly due to its charitable projects. In Ziway it has funded a hospital and schools and pays the wage bills. “When we arrived, we pumped water from Lake Ziway, but we’ve reduced our consumption by half since then by using computer-controlled drip irrigation, water recycling, and rainwater collection. It rains as much in Ethiopia as it does in Holland, but here it all falls in three months.”

/ Christelle Gérand

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